WFTB Score: 2/20
The plot: In Philadelphia, depressed apartment supervisor Cleveland Heep falls into the swimming pool and is rescued by Story, a water-nymph or ‘Narf’ with uplifting messages for several of the residents. She must be delivered back to her kind but a prowling ‘Scrunt’ – a vicious dog-like creature – keeps attacking her. The residents will need to combine and undertake specific roles if this Story is to have a happy ending.
Let it be known that I am by no means M Night Shyamalan’s fiercest critic. I thoroughly enjoyed The Sixth Sense, despite the ‘twist’ being blatantly obvious from the outset; I liked Unbreakable despite its po-faced attitude to its subject. I thought The Village wasn’t awful. In Lady in the Water, the director attempts to create something creative and fresh in the form of a fairytale for our times. Unfortunately, he only makes himself look vain, humourless and rather stupid.
An animated sequence informs us that as men used to live by the sea, they were never far from ‘narfs’ who would wisely guide their affairs. Over time, this relationship was lost as men moved inland, but despite the danger it posed for them, it didn’t stop the narfs from trying to contact people; people such as stammering supervisor Cleveland (Paul Giamatti) who takes a tumble into his pool and is rescued by pale nymph Story (Bryce Dallas Howard). Alarmed at having a naked young girl in his room, Cleveland calls on a young Chinese resident and her mother to make sense of Story’s, er, story, discovering that the mother is well acquainted with the legend of narfs, the scrunts that chase them, the monkeys that keep the scrunts under control and the eagle that will come to rescue Story. However, before she can go home, Cleveland must find Story a writer (played by Shyamalan) who, Story foretells, will create something of incredible significance though it will cost him his life. This done, it takes the combined efforts of Cleveland (harbouring his own tragic secret), the writer and his sister, and the other residents of the apartment block to guide Story home, with a party supposedly thrown to welcome bolshy film critic Harry Farber (Bob Balaban) actually a ploy to defeat the waiting scrunt.
If all this sounds a bit silly, it doesn’t do justice to how stupid Lady in the Water is. Mrs Choi is incredibly well-up on the myth of the narfs, and Cleveland takes her word for it, assigning himself as the Guardian of the story and a crossword-solving neighbour (Jeffrey Wright) as the navigator, whose puzzles seem to hold all the answers – until a setback forces him to reassess and Wright’s son, who has been reading runes in cereal boxes (no, really) comes up with a plan B. Meanwhile, an injured Story requires Cleveland to dive down to her sub-pool home to retrieve some healing mud and Harry, with a haughty, knowing film-critic assessment of his situation, meets a sticky end. Shyamalan and his (film) sister, meanwhile, hang around looking noble. Cleveland spills the beans about his past and comes to consider Story as something of a lifesaver, but many of their exchanges are whispered so whatever they’re talking about, the audience (thankfully) doesn’t get to know about most of it. Oh, and there’s a resident bodybuilder who, for no good reason, only builds half of his body.
Almost any amount of rubbish can be excused if it’s fun or resonates on a popular level, but not only is Lady in the Water no fun, it is the exclusive, indulgent reserve of Shyamalan and his children. The big question is not what the story is about (writers such as M Night change the world, as far as I can tell), but how Shyamalan ever persuaded the studios to fund the film. It’s too adult for children, too childish for adults, and we don’t even get the satisfaction of a trademark twist, which appears to be signposted by Cleveland’s initial accident (the rest of the ‘Story’ being the sublimation of his guilt over what happened to his family). The fact that there is no twist could be seen as a clever twist, except that that leaves us with taking the tale at face value and inevitably coming to the conclusion that the director has gone clean out of his mind.
I would hate to be accused of decrying imagination, but the simple truth is that in the case of Lady in the Water the writer/director/actor would have benefited immensely from a restraining hand (the same is true of other ‘visionary’ work such as Terry Gilliam’s Adventures of Baron Munchausen). Even though the actors give their all to the work (Giamatti, as ever, makes you root for him whatever), this is one tale that Shyamalan’s ultra-serious tone only serves to highlight as extremely daft, and absolutely not in a good way.